New Principal, New Principles: Interview with Mr.Rickey Harris

With a new principal, comes a whole lot of questions. Questions we here at the Beacon wanted answers to. We interviewed our new principal Rickey Harris himself. Below are the highlights of the interview.

JP: Where are you from?

Mr. Harris: I am a native of Chicago. I’ve lived on the South side all my life. I still live on the South side. I grew up in Englewood, and for those who may not know, Englewood — as described in the media — is a high-poverty, high-crime neighborhood. That is true in some instances, however in other instances, [it’s a] very community-oriented, very family-oriented neighborhood. And so, I didn’t experience the high crime and high poverty as designed by the media.

SA: You’ve worked both in public and private schools. What have your experiences been like in both?

Mr. Harris: So, I think my journey is interesting in that way, that my experience has been so wide in both public and private; as a Catholic school student principal, and then working in both public schools and private schools. They’re all different by design, number one. Number two, I think access to resources is what kind of distinguishes the different types of schools. I will say I walked away from each experience learning something new about myself [and] about my leadership. For example, having worked in a very affluent private school… teachers [and] parents are unafraid to ask for the sky. They’re unafraid. Versus, a Catholic school that’s filled with limited resources — they’ll ask for just enough, because… you approach your ask from a limited or deficit mindset. And so, having now experienced all, I always operate in a growth mindset. I say, I’m gonna ask, the worst you can do is tell me no, and that doesn’t put me in a worse position. So I’m going to ask for whatever I think the need is for our school commu- nity. So I continue to operate like that at Whitney Young.

JL: …So, you’re extremely qualified. But, what was the most difficult part about the interview process to become principal?

Mr. Harris: You know, I’ve worked with Dr. Kenner, I love her, [I] have been mentored by Dr. Kenner. And, in one of the inter- views — and it lasted well over an hour, the interview — it was to- ward the end of the interview that Dr. Kenner asked me a question, and it stumped me initially. And part of the reason why it stumped me [was] because I couldn’t be- lieve that this question that was so difficult was coming from her, and in my mind, I said, “Wait, Doc, we’re on the same team, don’t you want me to become principal?” And so, once I got over that, and then did some reflection, I thought about her as a mentor, as a leader, always pushing me to be the best of who I am. And even in that situation, where everything was on the line, essentially… in that moment still, she’s still pushing me to be my best, to pull out the best in me. I think that’s what that question caused me to do, to con- tinue to think and to refine even who I am as a leader.

JL: Just out of curiosity, are we allowed to know what that question was?

Mr. Harris: Sure. I’ll never forget the question. She says, in recent years, her interaction with Afri- can-American students at Whitney Young has not been the best. And so she had been framed, if you will, as not being supportive to African-American students. In contrast, it seems as if African-American students felt support from me. The question was, how do I then extend that level of support to non-African-American students at Whitney Young. That’s a damn good question. However, asking me the hard question in that setting […] establishes credibility, it establishes relationship-building, it establishes who I believe the LSC was looking for […] in the next principal. I’m glad they chose me.

JL: …You’re big on dreaming big. What has always been a big dream of yours?

Mr. Harris: Honestly, being principal here is a dream come true for me. Whitney Young is a powerhouse. Whitney Young has historically, locally and nationally highlighted as one of the most prestigious high schools, the best high school in the city of Chicago. I’ve always wanted to be attached, even as I became an educator, to lead the best. I want to be associated with the best, I’ve always wanted that. So, this is one of my dreams, to be the principal of the best school in the city of Chicago. Bigger than that, my hope and desire… sure, we’re recognized nationally, but… This is just maybe me, but I would love to put us on the map internationally. You know what I mean? Why not? The world is our classroom, not just within these walls. The world is our classroom, so the world needs to know how great we are and the great things that we’re doing, how great you all are… your academic achievement, your extracurriculars, your artistic expression, all those things. The world needs to know, and we need to be a model for the world. [Actually,] I was at the United Center last night at the Mary J. Blige concert — it was awesome. Literally on my way out, someone tapped me on the shoulder; and I had on sweats, you know, I wasn’t Mr. Harris, but someone stopped me and said, “Aren’t you the new principal of Whitney Young?” How do you even know that? But, again, saying that to say, I’m in a stadium of thousands upon thousands of people, and you can identify me. Not because I’m Rickey Harris, but because I’m the principal of Whitney Young. You know what I mean? And so, yeah, we are who we are, and we gotta embrace that, but also share who we are with the world.

JP: Whitney Young is known as a place of academic excellence… what would you say to someone who feels they don’t reach that standard?

Mr. Harris: So, it’s not necessarily about not being able to reach the standard. The real question becomes, what’s in the way of you reaching the standard? That’s part of our job as the educators, to not just ask questions but to ask the right questions. To get to the root cause of what’s in the way of the student achieving the maximum potential.

SA: What are your feelings on pineapple on pizza?

Mr. Harris: [long pause] No. I mean, I’ve had it, but no.

SA: Would you rather change the future or change the past?

Mr. Harris: The future.

SA: Would you rather control time or would you rather con- trol space?

Mr. Harris: Time, because I don’t ever have enough of it.

JP: Why is Whitney Young’s mascot a dolphin?

Mr. Harris: What I’ve been told is, the dolphin represents one of the smartest mammals. And so why not be represented by one of the smartest animals in the animal kingdom?

JL: What are some of your favorite things?

Mr. Harris: Shoes, I love shoes. Traveling. Good music. Even better, live music. I love to have fun. So anything associated with just having fun, being relaxed, laughing, enjoying company, being in company with people. I enjoy that; those are my favorite things.